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Elephants being held at the Horowapathana Elephant holding centre have died due to starvation and those responsible are still at large

This article reveals how the ‘Horowapathana Elephant holding Center’, which was established in 2015 to hold and look after troublesome wild elephants that were a threat to the lives of people in various parts of Sri Lanka, has now become an elephant torture centre, where elephants are dying due to starvation.

A recent audit report revealed that the money allocated for feeding the elephants at the EHC had been misappropriated on a large scale

The holding centre is under the purview of the Wildlife Department and maintained with public funds. Killing elephants is a crime and deliberately and allowing elephants that are under the protection and care of the wildlife department to starve to death is worse.

Up to date, no action has been taken against those responsible for deliberately causing the deaths of these elephants which were being held at the EHC in Horowapathana.

20 elephant deaths were reported within six years

Postmortem reports confirm that 16 deaths were due to malnutrition

Audit reports reveal fraud in funds allocated for feeding elephants

It is suspected that elephants are shot to death under the pretext that they were trying to  escape from the centre

Elephant attacks within the vicinity of the EHC claim 10 lives

Minister admits that investigations have been covered up!

In Sri Lanka, more elephants are killed by humans each year in comparison to the number of humans killed by wild elephants

The root cause for the rise in the conflict between humans and elephants in Sri Lanka is the loss of habitat due to illegal forest clearing on the pretext of development projects, encroaching  and land grabbing

It is inevitable that when food becomes scarce in wildlife sanctuaries elephants instinctively make their way out and feed on chena and paddy cultivations that border the sanctuaries. This gives rise to Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) and in the end, the farmers resort to killing these beasts to safeguard their crops and lives.

The Elephant Holding Center (EHC) was established in Horowapathana in 2015 with the aim of minimizing the harm caused to humans by wild elephants. However, serious problems in its design as well as in its management and operation have resulted in increased conflict between humans and elephants in the vicinity of the EHC and have resulted in the loss of lives of both elephants and humans.

Thus it appears that instead of solving the problem, the problem has only been shifted from one place to another.

This is just one aspect of the many issues at the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center. The worst-case scenario is that a significant number of the elephants held at the centre have died, and in most cases due to malnutrition and starvation.

Cabinet Memorandum No. 12/0151/549/001 dated 17/3/2012 proposing the establishment of the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center at a cost of Rs 345 million specifically states that an environmental impact report (EIR) should be obtained before the construction commences. But it was revealed that no EIR had been obtained.

A sum of Rs. 26,133,700 was allocated to provide food for 30 elephants being held at the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center for the period from 01 November 2018 to 31 October 2019, But the Auditor General’s report IIN / F / DWC / 19 / PR / 11  issued in October 2020  shows that no consideration was given to either the quality or edibility of the food provided or whether the elephants liked it or not. The report also points out that many large-scale frauds had taken place.

Information obtained from the Wildlife Department by using the Right To Information (RTI) it was found that 65 wild elephants had been taken to the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center after it was opened on September 03, 2015. But observations revealed that the actual figure should be 68.

According to wildlife officials, there were only four (04) elephants at the EHC as at January 2, 2022.

It was also revealed that more than 20 elephants have died within the Horowpathana Elephant holding Center while the other elephants have escaped or died in their attempt.

Postmortem reports on sixteen (16) elephants that had died within the EHC revealed that the cause of death of 10 elephants had been due to malnutrition,  three (3) had died due to electric shock and three (3)  due to gunshot injuries

The land area of the Horowapathana Elephant Holding Center is 997 hectares. (9.98 sq km).

Information provided by the wildlife department on 2014.09.10 revealed that the first elephant brought to this holding centre was on September 3, 2015, and was from Palapathwala in the Matale district. It was 8 feet and 6 inches tall and about 35 years old.

Postmortem reports of the dead elephants obtained from the Wildlife Department show that the cause of death of a 25-year-old elephant was due to electric shock but it also said that there were bullet marks on the carcass.

Drone footage of the layout of the EHC at Horowapathana

A 40-year-old elephant that escaped from the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center on September 24, 2019, has been shot dead in the Mukkara Wewa area in Horowapathana, (an area outside the Elephant holding Center). The postmortem report revealed that the elephant had been shot at several times.

When a request was made through RTI for the quantity of live ammunition issued to the EHC annually, the Wildlife Department refused to divulge the information stating that revealing such information was a threat to National security and abuse of section 5 of the RTI act. An appeal made to the Information Commission in this regard is pending.

  Kalyani Wijethunga (59) who resides in the Morawewa area in Horowapathana said that the villagers knew when an elephant is brought to the Horowapathana EHC as it keeps on trumpeting for two or three days. “Then it somehow finds its way out of the EHC and comes to our villages and feeds on our cultivations,” she said.

Kalyani Wijethunge says that elephants brought to the EHC make their
way out within a few days

The post-mortem reports also confirmed that the legs of some of the elephants which escaped had injuries made by iron spikes.

In the case of the blind elephant which roamed in the Sigiriya Sanctuary and surrounding villages which was captured on May 17, 2018, the Wildlife Officials told the media that the elephant would be taken to the Udawalawe Elephant Sanctuary for treatment.

(That video-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSJv2YUuDNs)

But the elephant had been taken to the Horowapathana Elephant holding and had been found dead in the Kapugollewa area of the holding centre on November 14, 2018.


Information provided by the Wildlife Department on 15.03.2021 in response to a query made through the Right to Information Act does not mention that this wild elephant was taken to the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center and proves that in some instances wild elephants have been taken to the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center without any records being made. The fate of this wild elephant would still be a mystery if the post-mortem reports of the elephants that had died within the Horowapathana EHC had not been sought through the RTI Act.

Villages said that this particular elephant had been blinded and had made the Sigiriya Sanctuary its home and roamed in the surrounding villages. It urgently needed medical attention and treating it was the responsibility of wildlife officials. The villagers as well as wildlife officials confirm that no one in the area was harmed by this elephant. This incident shows that the officials of the Department of Wildlife had deliberately neglected their primary responsibility of conserving wildlife by not taking this animal for treatment at the Udawalawa Elephant Sanctuary as planned.

Relocating is not a solution but shifting the problem

The main reason for the human-elephant conflict is that people encroach on the ancestral roaming grounds of these majestic beasts. The idea of relocating them to a confined alien territory is unacceptable. The relocation of elephants has endangered the lives of people in the area where the elephant is relocated.

 Mr Premarathne a resident of Morawewa, Horowapathana said that the EHC was a failure as the elephants brought there made their way out due to the lack of food and said that to his knowledge about ten people had been killed by elephants which escaped from the EHC.


M A Somarathna says that about ten people have been killed by
elephants that escaped from the EHC

People living in villages around the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center, including Morawewa, Ihala Divulwewa, Thibiriaththewala, Ali Kimbulagala, Motagonewa, Kalavediulpotha and Katuwaragollewa are being endangered by wild elephants escaping from the Elephant Holding Center. This clearly shows that the problem has not been answered but has simply been taken to another place.

What is the solution?

Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, a researcher on wild elephants, points out that in an environment where wild elephants are dying for the need of food caused by various human activities, all concerned should adopt scientific methods such as protecting the habitat, food and water resources of the elephants as well as ensuring an ecological balance. But unsuccessful methods, such as capturing wild elephants and holding them in places where there is no proper diet has resulted in the wild elephants starving to death. The same thing is happening at the Horowpathana Elephant holding Center. He points out that a wild elephant should consume about 200 to 300 kilograms of food daily. As the EHC is a part of the forest with secondary features, the required amount of food is not available within this detention Centre and additional food should be provided to these animals. 


Dr Prithviraj Fernando

According to Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, a former Director-General of the Wildlife Department, an adult elephant living in the forest travels a distance of 20 to 25 km a day, while an elephant in musth travels about 60 km a day on average. However, the total size of the Horowapathana Wild Elephant holding Center is only  997 hectares (2466 acres) and holding elephants at the EHC  completely obscures the natural behaviour of the animals and their ability to live freely.


Carcasses of elephants that were being held at the EHC

”There was pressure from the political authorities and the community to capture the ferocious elephants in the village. Initially, these elephants were taken to other wildlife sanctuaries. But they put radio collars on the elephants to see what would happen to them. According to the data collected, it was evident that the elephants were trying to return to their home range because elephants love their habitat. A lot of collisions with people take place while they are returning to their home range.  The Department of Wildlife took steps to set up an elephant detention centre as a solution to this problem, ”said Dr Sumith Pilapitiya.

‘Exploitation’ by elephants eating

The audit report reveals that, although five wild elephants have died due to malnutrition, the post mortem reports of the elephants that had died at the Horowpathana Elephant holding Center confirmed that 09 wild elephants had died of malnutrition between 2014 and 2019 alone.

As a sum of Rs 8.1 million (Rs. 8,187986.20) had been allocated from 2015 to 2020 to the Horowpathana Wild Elephant holding Center to provide food for the elephants being held there, it is evident that the funds had not been properly utilized to provide essential nutrients to these animals.

” Elephants are not in this because they do not want to eat. They escape somehow. Sometimes those elephants are very weak. Elephants are also injured when they jump over fences. Such an escaped elephant had died about four years ago in the Ranawarapitiya area in Morawewa, ”said W. Dilshan.

The place where the elephant died was about 300 meters from the border of the EHC towards  Morawewa. The bones of the dead elephant are still visible.

  The location where the bones pictured above  were discovered


A wildlife official said that the remaining few elephants at the EHC are also suffering from malnutrition, because allocating funds for supplementary food was suspended after the 2019 audit. In response to an inquiry made on 23rd March 2021, the Director-General of the Wildlife Department said that the feeding had been stopped because there was sufficient food within the EHC. However, an investigation has revealed that it is a forest system with large trees and does not have proper undergrowth for the elephants to eat.

The most recent death of an elephant at the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center was reported on 12th July 2021.  The dead elephant which was found dead was about 30 years old and 8 feet 6 inches tall. It had been captured from the Cement Village area in Puttalam on July 2, 2018. In a news report published in The ‘Ada’ newspaper, it had been mentioned that the elephant was suffering from malnutrition after being brought to the Horowpathana Elephant holding Center. But due to the lack of attention and negligence of the authorities, the elephant had starved to death. The postmortem examination of the elephant was carried out on 14th July 2021.

Shortage of food

A search made on  Google Earth at the time of death of the above animal showed that revealed that the area was experiencing severe dry weather at that time and it was also observed that the water in the four small tanks within the EHC was also drying up.

In most instances when elephants within the Horowapathana EHC died due to starvation it was found that the area was experiencing extremely dry weather and even the tanks within the EHC were drying up.

Dr Pilapitiya said that when he visited the Horowapathana EHC after his appointment as the Director-General of Wildlife it made him wonder why the EHC was established in that area. He said that according to research it has been found that an elephant needs a range of at least five square kilometres of primary or secondary forest or at least three square kilometres in areas where there is lush undergrowth. He emphasized that primary and secondary forests are not suitable as there isn’t sufficient food.

Wildlife officers loading a wild elephant onto a truck to be taken to the EHC

Elephants that died due to malnutrition at the EHC in Horowapathana

All the dead elephants were males

In areas where human-elephant conflict has taken place, most of the elephants that create problems are solitary males. These are elephants that are chased away from the herd when they reach a certain age. Under normal circumstances, they join another herd. But due to deforestation and unplanned elephant enclosures, the elephants that are unable to join another herd are compelled to live as solitary elephants. Hence the majority of the elephants brought to the EHC are males. It was found that of the total of 65 elephants brought to the Horowapathana EHC 64 were males!

Dr Prithviraj Fernando points out that these violent elephants taken to the EHC are active elephants with strong genes and keeping them confined directly affects the elephant population as they are unable to mate and also causes the loss of the genetic lineage of strong elephants.

The Minister’s response

The Minister of Wildlife, Mr C.B.Ratnayake  when contacted said that he had instructed the secretary of the ministry to conduct an inquiry into the findings of the audit report. He also admitted that the investigations are swept under the carpet at times cause of the friendliness among the officers. We will call for that report in 2022. ”

Wildlife, Mr C.B.Ratnayake 

Minister of Wildlif, Mr C.B.Ratnayake

He also said that he had never been informed by wildlife officials about the deaths of elephants at EHC and added that it was administered through the State Ministry.

When an inquiry was made from the Minister of State for Wildlife Wimalaweera Dissanayake, he said that wildlife officials had not informed him that the elephants at the EHC will die without food. He added that they were taking measures to feed the elephants again. He said that elephants will not be brought to the EHC until arrangements are made to provide additional food for the elephants at the EHC and action will be taken to move the animals to protected areas. ”

Minister of State for Wildlife Wimalaweera Dissanayake

The Minister of State also said that steps will be taken to set up an Elephant Viewing Center at the Horowapathana Elephant holding Center.

The facts collected show that wildlife officials and decision-makers should be held responsible for the death of wild elephants at the Horowapathana Wild Elephant holding Center. It also reveals that the Department of Wildlife has neglected its primary role in conserving wildlife.

Investigated and reported by Rahul Samantha Hettiarachchi

reporting This story was supported by Internews earth journalism network

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  1. As per this article, I feel the best solution would be to close down this center and transfer the elephants to the udawalawe center, where they can be introduced to female elephants and once they get used each other, eg. 1male elephant to2 to 3 females, group them and relocate to their natural habitats. Also, an elephant path linking yala national park and wilpaththu national park linking other national parks on that path and baning all human settlements and cultivation with a 500 meter distance from the boundaries of the forest would be the best PERMANENT solution! Instead of building highways construct canals bordering forests from which water can be distributed to the cultivation from one side and to the forest from the other side! Sri Lanka is a country in which you can reach any end within a day! Taking a highway will not show you the beauty it, since you can’t stop on a highway.


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